Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer had the ignominious job of defending or explaining the decisions and lies of an erratic president. Now, in journalist Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury, it is possible to relive some of Spicer’s public humiliation.
Spicer doesn’t play a starring role in the book, which dishes gossip and details from Trump’s first year in the White House. That’s probably because, at least in Wolff’s account, he was largely marginalized in a presidential administration with an outsized obsession with the media.
But Spicer’s occasional cameos are a reminder of the dysfunction that permeated the White House, particularly in the early months of the administration — or, really, on Day 1, when Spicer stood at the podium and defended fake inauguration crowds to reporters.
Wolff characterizes Spicer as Trump’s “flunky and whipping boy,” and treats him with a mixture of pity and disdain. In Wolff’s view, he was a “mild-mannered, process-oriented professional” turned into a “joke figure standing at the White House door.” The author describes Spicer’s daily mantra as “you can’t make this shit up.”
Wolff’s book has its own “you can’t make this shit up” quality — calling into question just how accurate his account is. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained, the book has been scrutinized for the sourcing and authenticity of some of its most sensational scenes. Nevertheless, its broad outlines — an uncontrollable, mercurial president and a factionalized White House — were echoed in many news reports throughout Trump’s first year in office.
Spicer told George Stephanopolous on Good Morning America that he had met with Wolff. He said some of the anecdotes are true and the quotes are correct, “but the context in which they’re given, aren’t.”
With that in mind, here are the most notable Sean Spicer moments in Fire and Fury.
1) The problem wasn’t the fake inauguration crowd story, it was that Sean Spicer didn’t really sell the fake inauguration crowd story.
Trump had convinced himself, and bragged to others, about the huge size of his inauguration crowd. Spicer was then tasked with repeating that astounding falsehood to reporters — something for which he and the administration were quickly pilloried. Wolff writes of Spicer’s mortifying debut:
He sent his new press secretary, Sean Spicer—whose personal mantra would shortly become “You can’t make this shit up”—to argue his case in a media moment that turned Spicer, quite a buttoned-down political professional, into a national joke, which he seemed destined to never recover from. To boot, the president blamed Spicer for not making the million phantom souls seem real. [p. 47]
This was Spicer’s rude awakening, according to Wolff: “It was the first presidential instance of what the campaign regulars had learned over many months: on the most basic level, Trump just did not, as Spicer later put it, give a fuck.”
2) Spicer fought the leaks — and the leaks won.
Trump railed against leaks, though many came from the battling factions inside the White House, specifically aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner and strategist Steve Bannon. But Spicer gave it a sporting try:
The constant leaking was often blamed on lower minions and permanent executive branch staff, culminating in late February with an all-hands meeting of staffers called by Sean Spicer—cell phones surrendered at the door—during which the press secretary issued threats of random phone checks and admonitions about the use of encrypted texting apps. Everybody was a potential leaker; everybody was accusing everybody else of being a leaker.
Everybody was a leaker. [p. 121]
3) Trump allegedly wasn’t a fan of Spicer’s brains. Or his looks.
Trump allegedly railed that his press secretary was “stupid (and looks terrible too).” (p.122) Trump’s vitriol wasn’t reserved for Spicer. Wolff writes that Trump had a habit of bad-mouthing his staff, often on after-dinner phone calls to outside friends and confidantes.
4) Spicer wasn’t Trump’s first choice for the job. Or second. Or third, or ... hey, even Tucker Carlson might have gotten a call.
Kellyanne Conway claims to have turned down the job of White House press secretary, and Trump, according to Wolff, wanted to find a “star” for the job. That apparently includes media personalities that appear on Fox News:
The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who had spoken at the convention, was on the list, as was Ann Coulter. Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo was also under consideration. (This was television, the president-elect said, and it ought to be a good-looking woman.) When none of those ideas panned out, the job was offered to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who turned it down. [p.205]
The administration, of course, ended up choosing Spicer — an RNC staffer close to former chief of staff Reince Priebus. That the White House didn’t go with a big name, Wolff writes, stemmed from a Bannonesque view of the media as the enemy, denying the supposed elite a high-profile liaison.
Still, Spicer had his own reservations about taking the job, reportedly asking, “‘If I do this, will I ever be able to work again?’”
5) Trump was constantly berating Spicer about his briefing performances...
This one isn’t exactly new, but Wolff describes Trump unleashing “a constant stream of directorial castigation and instruction that reliably rattled the press secretary.” Trump’s obsession with the media meant Spicer never really had a chance:
It was Donald Trump who was not able to relinquish this proximity to the press and the stage in his own house. He regularly berated Spicer for his ham-handed performances, often giving his full attention to them.
6) Which meant Trump never abandoned the dream of a Fox News host on the podium.
Wolff says that Trump wanted to replace Spicer from the get-go, and that at one point, he made overtures to Kimberly Guilfoyle, co-host of the Fox News show The Five. (Some White House sources deny she was offered a job.) Wolff says she declined the post, but suggested Anthony Scaramucci (whom she was rumored to be dating) — who eventually would be hired as White House communications director.
7) At least Spicer dodged the Russia bullet.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating a statement Trump helped draft aboard Air Force One in July after revelations that his son, Don Jr., had met with a Russian lawyer. What Trump did not do was enlist his communications team, including Sean Spicer, for help in crafting a response. Instead, Wolff says they were “relegated to the back of the plane and excluded from the panicky discussions.”
That might not have been a bad thing:
“It used to hurt my feelings when I saw them running around doing things that were my job,” said Spicer. “Now I’m glad to be out of the loop.” [p.258]
8) Spicer also reportedly got on the wrong side of “Jarvanka.”
Even more than Trump’s displeasure with Spicer, Ivanka and Jared might have sealed Spicer’s fate. They questioned his loyalty, in part because Spicer and his team weren’t seen as doing enough to defend the interests of the first daughter and her husband, according to Wolff.
Spicer faced an impossible situation:
Spicer, ever ridiculed in the media for his cockamamie defense of the White House and a seeming dumb loyalty, had been judged by the president, quite from the inauguration, to be not loyal enough and not nearly as aggressive as he should be in Trump’s defense. Or, in Jared and Ivanka’s view, in his family’s defense. “What does Spicer’s forty-member comm staff actually do?” was a persistent First Family question. [p.272]
This displeasure with Spicer, in Wolff’s account, gave Scaramucci an opening into the administration. Ivanka and Jared suggested him for the White House communications director job, which had been vacant since May:
“He’s good on television,” Ivanka told Spicer when she explained the rationale for hiring a former hedge fund manager as White House communications director. “Maybe he can help us.” [p.273]
Spicer reportedly objected to the hiring of Scaramucci — a hedge fund manager who had no press experience — and resigned after Trump named him White House communications director. “Oddly,” Wolff writes of Spicer’s resignation, “this seemed to catch everyone unawares.”